Michigan Legislature launches probe into Benton Harbor water crisis
Citing “unsettling” revelations about the state of Michigan’s handling of Benton Harbor’s lead-in-water crisis, the leader of Senate Oversight Committee has asked Michigan environmental regulators to turn over a lengthy list of documents detailing their response.
In a letter Monday, Committee Chair Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, gave Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, 10 days to produce communications from a host of EGLE staff, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office, Benton Harbor officials and others related to the elevated lead levels that began showing up in water sampling three years ago.
The House Oversight Committee has also asked Clark to testify at a hearing on Thursday, EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid told Bridge.
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The inquiry follows mounting public outcry over the state’s response to chronic lead contamination in the city’s water. Local activists and national environmental groups have criticized EGLE for a slow state and local response after water sampling in 2018 revealed elevated lead levels in tap water in the majority-Black city of 9,103 people.
Following the discovery, the state began providing water filters and directed Benton Harbor water managers to begin using corrosion control designed to prevent lead from leaching out of water delivery pipes.
But activists contend that because state officials did not ensure everyone in Benton Harbor had obtained a filter and knew how to use it, many in the city continued to drink straight from the tap.
In a petition last month asking the federal Environmental Protection Agency to intervene, local activists and state and national environmental groups also raised questions about the choice of anti-corrosion chemicals used in Benton Harbor, arguing the state failed to adequately study the effectiveness of the orthophosphate and polyphosphate blend.
When the treatment failed to lower lead levels below the 15 parts per billion threshold, local activists have argued, EGLE should have done more to make sure residents were aware of the risk and equipped with safe water from another source.
Citing a reference to reporting in the Detroit News that outlined those concerns, McBroom wrote that “a thorough review of the Department’s response to this tragedy is necessary and will help strengthen and preserve the Department’s effectiveness moving forward.”
“I make these requests in good faith and share the common goal of a cooperative and productive exchange of information,” he wrote.
EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid said Tuesday the agency “looks forward to showing our work regarding the activities that the Committee is requesting.”
In the wake of the EPA petition, the Whitmer administration last week ramped up its response in Benton Harbor, providing free bottled water and blood lead testing and striking an agreement with legislators to provide an additional $10 million to put the city on an 18-month timeline to get lead pipes out of the city water system.
Local activists welcomed those changes, but argued they came too late. They are still considering a class-action lawsuit against the state, said Rev. Edward Pinkney, who leads the Benton Harbor Community Water Coalition.
Benton Harbor city commissioners voted on Monday night to declare a state of emergency, something Mayor Muhammad said was meant to “sound a louder alarm” to alert the public to the ongoing crisis.
The plan gives Muhammad broad discretion, with city commision oversight, to command city departments in response to the crisis.
“The city commission has given the mayor full power, full strength in this emergency to lead and guide the city,” Mayor Pro Tem Duane Seats said of the action.
Speaking during a press conference Tuesday at Benton Harbor City Hall, Muhammad said he has asked Whitmer to subsidize residents’ water bills.
Such water bill credits were provided to Flint residents after a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s drinking water source without requiring corrosion control chemicals to keep lead from leaching out of pipes, creating a lead-in-water crisis in Flint.
Muhammad said the city has established a community response team that will meet weekly, and will go door-to-door to inform residents about lead risks. City officials also will travel to Lansing on Thursday to speak before the House oversight committee.
“The communication gap has to be closed,” he said.
In a release, Whitmer’s office noted that she had traveled to Benton Harbor on Monday to meet with city officials and residents. She called upon the legislature to free up an additional $11.4 million to replace Benton Harbor’s lead service lines.
“I cannot imagine the stress that moms and dads in Benton Harbor are under as they emerge from a pandemic, work hard to put food on the table, pay the bills, and face a threat to the health of their children,” Whitmer said. “That’s why we will not rest until every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water knowing that it is safe.”
McBroom’s document request includes correspondence about the corrosion control treatment used in Benton Harbor, along with any correspondence the department sent out to notify the public about the city’s elevated lead levels.
EGLE officials contend that the chemical mix in use in Benton Harbor, which was selected after surveying corrosion control mix used in other nearby water systems, is working after a tweak to the formula in March 2020, and has generally lowered lead levels in Benton Harbor, though levels in some homes remain dangerously high. But the chemicals will take time to be fully effective, said Eric Oswald, EGLE’s director of drinking water and environmental health.
“It takes a while for the system to stabilize,” Oswald told Bridge in an interview earlier this month, noting that anti-corrosion chemicals used in Flint took “a couple of years” to stabilize lead levels.
Not all water advocates pushing for more action in Benton Harbor are happy with the probe.
Cyndi Roper, a senior Michigan advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it a political stunt and noted that Republican state and federal legislators who represent Benton Harbor have done little to secure aid since the lead revelations emerged.
“Where were they, in ensuring that the resources were available to the community to make sure that the lead service lines were going to be replaced?” Roper asked.
Noting that communities across Michigan still have copious lead service lines and have made little progress toward removing them, Roper argued that legislators and Whitmer administration officials should focus less on assigning political blame and instead “be focused on preventing the next Benton Harbor.”
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